Advisor: Dr. Demie Kurz Reader: Dr. Fran Barg

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Maya Women and Domestic Violence in Guatemala: Searching for Support

Gender, Society and Culture (GSOC) Senior Thesis

Advisor: Dr. Demie Kurz

Reader: Dr. Fran Barg

May 6th, 2010

Anna Aagenes

Class of 2010

University of Pennsylvania

April 26th, 2010

Maya Women and Domestic Violence in Guatemala: Searching for Support

Table of Contents

I. Introduction……………………………………………………………………………4

II. Methods……………………………………………………………………………….15
III. Results…………………………………………………………………………… ….21
IV. Analysis……………………………………………………………………………...33
V. Conclusion……………………………………………………………………………51

Maya Women and Domestic Violence in Guatemala: Searching for Support

Violence against women in the form of domestic abuse is a very serious problem throughout the world, yet many women do not have access to the services they need. This is particularly true for abused women in vulnerable communities, such as Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala, where the research reported here took place. The goal of this study was to examine what types of support services were available to women in this rural, indigenous community. To do this, I interviewed twenty professionals, located through a snowball sampling method, about their work and experience with victims of domestic abuse. Not only has Guatemala’s history of violence contributed to the high prevalence of domestic violence, but also I found that machismo, economic inequality between men and women, the power of the church, and the role of “culture” in perpetuating the circle of violence are also key factors that contribute to domestic violence in Santiago. Although there are individuals and groups working toward making change to reduce the domestic violence toward Mayan women, there are various structural barriers to making change, such as the institutionalized sexism and the linguistic and ethnic divide that have inhibited change despite the good intentions of the professionals of Santiago Atitlán.

Maya Women and Domestic Violence in Guatemala: Searching for Support
I. Introduction
Twenty-five year old Maribel called me around noon to tell me that a victim of domestic violence had arrived at her legal aid organization, the Bufete Popular. Maribel had been doing her legal internship with the Bufete for the past six months and had told me that she would call me if there were an opportunity to observe the legal proceedings that were standard for a victim of domestic abuse. I had been feeling sick all morning, but I knew that this could be my one opportunity to observe this process while I was in Santiago. When I got to the Bufete, the female victim was there and appeared to be on the brink of tears. She was not much older than I am, in her early twenties, dressed in traditional Mayan wipele and corte (shirt and skirt), and her hands and ears were adorned with gold jewelry. Maribel instructed me to come in and sit down as I quietly greeted the young woman in the chair. Maribel, at her desk asked me if I had any questions for the woman before we got started, which I was ill prepared to do both due to feeling sick and my lack of prepared questions. No, no, I managed to muster up despite my shock – I wanted to observe and that I did not need to ask any questions. I felt exposed, not for myself, but the fact that I was given access to the secrets of a woman in such a vulnerable state.

As the victim described her abusive relationship, I was shocked by the openness with which the young woman revealed her situation to Maribel and me in front of another young lawyer in training typing away at his computer. She said that her husband drank too much and did drugs, and he would yell at her in the streets, making her feel completely worthless in front of her neighbors and family. “Toma demasiado…(y) me dice tantas cosas…que yo soy pobre..que yo soy una puta…que yo soy una qualquiera” (He drinks too much..and he tells me many things – that I’m poor, that I’m a slut, that I’m a “whatever.”) Though he had been insulting her in this way and threatening her life for a long time, she had not reported him because she was Christian and she was afraid, she told us. Uncomfortably, she circled her hands together in agony, as Maribel asked her more questions. Maribel told the victim about her options and a general overview of how the legal proceedings would work. All of the background research I had done could not have prepared me to face an encounter where I became part of the process of helping a victim of domestic violence. Seeing her crying and going through so much pain put a face on all of the “facts” that I had heard about how bad the situation was in Santiago. Life is painful here, for many women, I kept thinking, more painful than I could ever have imagined.

Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, is a painful reality not only in Santiago Atitlán but for women across the globe. According to the United Nations Population Fund, known as the UNFPA, gender-based violence has been labeled as "the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights abuse in the world" (UNFPA, 2008, online). While domestic violence is an umbrella term that signifies violence between family members, the most common reference to domestic violence is that which occurs when husbands abuse their wives: eighty-five percent of violence against women is committed by the victim’s spouse (SEA, 286). Additionally, the UNFPA states the following of this global epidemic:

Around the world, as many as one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way - most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member; one woman in four has been abused during pregnancy (ibid).

The fact that one third of women have experienced some form of gender based violence is a staggering statistic. Unfortunately, those women who have not yet been victims of violence are still at risk for becoming victims of abuse later in life: The United Nations Development Fund for Women cites that “six out of every ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime” (UNIFEM, 2007, online).
Statement of Purpose:

Regardless of whether or not one has or will become a victim of domestic abuse, many women in Guatemala and all over the world live in fear of violence and abuse, even within their own households. Therefore, for my senior thesis, I have chosen to research the current situation of domestic violence in Santiago Atitlán Guatemala to help shed light on an extremely important yet understudied global issue.

Although I was hesitant about researching a topic as sensitive as domestic violence for fear that I would impose on the privacy of this community, I began to feel a responsibility to overcome my own fear in order to investigate the fear that continues to plague the lives of an innumerable amount of Guatemalan women. In Linda Green’s book on the war widows living in rural indigenous Guatemala, entitled Fear as A Way of Life, she argues that, in the past, anthropologists “have traditionally approached the study of conflict, war and human aggression from a distance, ignoring the harsh realities of people’s lives” (Green, 56). Thus, however difficult of a subject this was for me to hear about from a researcher’s point of view, the fear that many women live in on a daily basis outweighs any discomfort a writer or researcher may feel hearing about this painful reality.

Since such little attention has been paid to the crisis of domestic violence on a local (Santiago) or on a national (Guatemala) level, the opinions of those persons working on the programs intended to solve the domestic abuse crisis are essential and interwoven throughout this report. Through my interviews with these people, whom I refer to as professionals, I intend to paint a clearer picture of how domestic violence impacts Mayan women in Santiago. First, I will provide a background of the prevalence of domestic violence in Guatemala and on the community of Santiago where I carried out my research. Next I will discuss the common forms and characteristics of domestic violence as told to me by the professionals. I will then give an analysis of the resources and the services that the professionals themselves provide for victims of abuse. Later, in the analysis part of my paper, I will talk about the barriers that perpetuate domestic violence in Santiago, yet I will also explain why we should be hopeful about the work that is being done for female victims of abuse.

Guatemala: Background and Statistics on Domestic Violence

“This is Guatemala, where more than 3,000 women have been brutally murdered since 2000, and fewer than 2% of cases end in convictions. This is Guatemala, where femicide, or the murder of women, claimed the lives of at least 665 women in 2005, 603 women in 2006, and 306 women during the first seven months of 2007…

This is Guatemala, the most dangerous place for women in all of Latin America”
(Guatemala Human Rights Commission, 2008, page1)
Guatemala is located in Central America between Mexico and El Salvador while sharing its borders with Honduras and Belize. This country of “eternal spring” is situated in a mountainous, fertile part of the world with an abundance of natural resources, yet it wasn’t until 1996 that 36 years of Civil War ended, renewing Guatemala’s place as a global economy, known for its production of bananas, coffee and sugar (CIA, 2010, online). While conducting research in Santiago Atitlán two summers ago, I fell in love with this post-conflict country. In the rural town of Santiago located on the world-famous Lake Atitlán, Guatemala did feel like an “eternal spring,” yet I also witnessed the impact that violence and fear has had on my friends and host family members.

Although domestic violence is a serious issue that affects every society in the world, rates of domestic violence are shockingly high in Guatemala. Unfortunately, in Guatemala, “physical abuse is widely considered an appropriate way for a man to discipline his wife, lover, or other female relation” (Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, 2008, page 2). The societal acceptance of male violence against women means that many women live in fear of their husbands’ or boyfriends’ physical abuse. An Amnesty International report from 2007 explained this troubling failure to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of domestic violence. According to a statement in this 2007 report made by the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Women, her office “receives approximately 800 reports of domestic violence per month, with some of those cases ending in murder and that those murders could be prevented if Guatemalan law provided for prison sentences in cases of domestic violence” (Amnesty International, “No protection” 20). Various national and international human rights organizations have flagged and criticized Guatemala’s indifference toward the murder and abuse of women.

While attempting to find research on domestic violence in Santiago Atitlán, I found that, historically, not much attention has been paid to researching or to solving the problem of violence against women in Guatemala. In the 2002 CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women), Guatemalan country officials admitted to this deficit in “gender-disaggregated data regarding violence” and that there was “no available data on the number of perpetrators of domestic violence and there were also no State shelters for victims” (CEDAW, 2002, online). Perhaps it is not surprising that in a country that has historically suppressed any discussion of violence, gender-based violence is no exception. Furthermore, even two years after this admission at CEDAW, there was no visible change in available information about domestic violence. An investigator for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted that in 2004 "’The invisibility of violence against women can be seen in the absence of studies or statistics on the prevalence of violence in the family or domestic violence, as well as in the lack of information on sexual crimes that mainly affect women’" (Amnesty International, 2004, page 20). This lack of information is extremely troubling and problematic not only for those seeking to understand the problem from a research point of view, but more importantly, this “invisibility” has a profound impact on the victims since silence allows domestic violence to continue without consequences to the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, only recently has the high level of domestic violence in Guatemala come into public view, although new reports are not necessarily reliable. In 2002, “Encuesta Nacional de Salud Materno Infantil” (The National Survey on and Maternal and Infant Health or ENSMI) conducted a national health report in Guatemala and dedicated a large portion of their survey to addressing domestic violence. The 2002 ENSMI report notes that a woman will report a greater amount of physical violence than her husband or male partner will, and the man often speaks in place of the woman, robbing her of the opportunity to share her story (Klein, 220). Not only is there a general lack of information and awareness about the domestic violence in Guatemala, there are severe limitations to the existing data since, as shown by the ENSMI survey, male heads of the household may report less domestic violence than what actually occurs.

It is significant that Guatemalan women’s health in general, not just in regards to domestic violence, is substantially worse than other Latin American countries. For example, the rate of maternal mortality is very high (about 200 deaths per 100,00 births) due to many factors such as a lack of sufficient healthcare services and untrained midwives (Schooley, 2). Additionally, “Guatemalan women are expected to have 4.4 births in their reproductive lifetime. This is the highest figure of the seven Central American countries with which Guatemala is compared. Life expectancy at birth for Guatemalan women is 65.8 years. This is less than the life expectancy in thirteen Central American and Caribbean countries (71.5 years)” (ibid). Traditionally, wives are expected to be the caregivers for their children, yet there is a lack of adequate health services for both women and their families. Due to structural problems in the existing care for women’s health, it is no wonder that domestic violence has not been a priority for Guatemalan policy makers.
Setting: Santiago, Atitlán

Santiago Atitlán is a small indigenous community of primarily Tz’tujil people located in southern highlands of Guatemala. The town is one of the Mayan villages surrounding the gorgeous Lake Atitlán in the district of Sololá, which is encompassed by a string of volcanoes. Santiago has about 43,000 residents, making it one the largest villages of Mayans in all of Guatemala (Pueblo a Pueblo). According to a website produced by a grassroots group in Santiago called K’aslimaal, “Lake Atitlan is a beautiful jewel nestled between three volcanoes (Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro) It lies at an altitude of one mile, providing for a mild, semi tropical climate that lends itself to the agricultural pursuits of most of the local people” (K’aslimaal). Not only is Santiago seen as the Center of the Mayan universe, it is also regarded as one of the most beautiful, temperate places in the world. Although it is famous for its beauty and culture, Santiago, like many other Mayan communities, is extremely poor. Most of the people live well below the poverty line and many cannot afford basic necessities for all the members of their families. According to a 1998 report entitled Health in the Americas, the poverty rate disproportionately affects indigenous Mayans compared to Ladinos: In 1998, “the proportion of the population living in conditions of poverty was 75% for the country as a whole, with 58% living in extreme poverty. Both poverty and extreme poverty are higher in rural areas and among the indigenous population, 93% of whom were living in poverty and 91% in extreme poverty in 1989. By contrast, among the non-indigenous population the proportions were only 66% and 45%, respectively.” (PAHO, 2001, online). It is no coincidence that the high percentage of Mayans living in Santiago corresponds to its equally high rate of impoverished people.

While the majority of people in Santiago are Tz’utujil Mayans, in the rest of Guatemala, Maya account for only forty percent of the total population in Guatemala compared to the majority “Ladino” population. A “ladino” refers to someone who is of Spanish origin or of mixed decent who has rejected the indigenous, traditional Mayan lifestyle. There are about twenty-seven types of official ethnic groups in Guatemala (twenty six of which are types of Mayans), and the Tz’utujil population makes up only .07% of all Guatemalans according 2002 Census data (INE, 2010, online). The language of Tz’utujil distinguishes this ethnic group of Maya; Tz’utujil is different from the more popular dialects around Lake Atitlán such as Quiche or Kaqchikel. Tz’utujil is a relatively uncommon language compared to other dialects and is found primarily in Santiago and a few other communities in the western and southern highlands of Guatemala.

Aside from Civil war, which will be discussed later in the report, another important event that dramatically changed the lives of the people of Santiago Atitlan was the 2005 mudslides caused by Hurricane Stan. The effects of this hurricane on the community are ongoing and include the complete destruction of thousands of homes, the local hospital and school, among other fundamental parts of the infrastructure in the town. Unfortunately four years after Stan, “nearly one third of the families still live in plastic tent shelters without clean water, proper nutrition, adequate healthcare or educational opportunities for their children” (Pueblo a Pueblo date page!!). Despite the efforts to restore the physical and emotional well being of the residents of Santiago, hundreds continue to live in areas deemed uninhabitable by the government. Those who have lost loved ones and all of their possessions continue to suffer the psychological and economic toll of the mudslides. During days of extremely heavy rain, I noticed that some of my Tz’utujil friends were on edge and a few even admitted to being a little afraid a storm like Stan could be approaching again.

Women have a unique role in the community of Santiago Atitlan that is important to upholding Mayan culture and tradition. Unlike the majority of Mayan men in Santiago who prefer to wear more Western clothing, most of the Tz’tujil women in Santiago continue to wear this traditional clothing. According to anthropologists who have studied indigenous Mayans, it is primarily the women who are the defenders of their culture against outside oppositional forces:

Indigenous women in Guatemala, including former combatants and survivors of genocidal attacks, face targeted, unrelenting pressure from the government to abandon their roles as socio-cultural guardians of Mayan traditions. Dismissed as ignorant, victimized, and tradition-bound by state authorities, Guatemalan indigenous women nevertheless continue to challenge the transitional state’s economic and political interests in the highland regions by adhering to traditional communal values in opposition to Europeanized norms (Eccarius-Kelly, 2006,

page 12)
Despite the central role that women play in defending traditional Mayan culture from outside authorities, it is curious that women in Guatemalan society continue to be constantly degraded on both a national and community level.

II. Methods:
Previous experience in Santiago:

Based on my past experience in Santiago in 2008 doing medical anthropological research on gender roles and sexual health education, I was comfortable with immediately beginning my interviews with professionals in the community. Thus, I felt welcomed back by my friends and acquaintances when I returned in 2009. Although two years ago, I was more interested in sexual health education and the role of women in Santiago through my work with the University of Pennsylvania’s Guatemala Health Initiative (GHI), my research slowly evolved in my current topic. The focus of my research changed to domestic violence as I, along with my fellow student researchers and faculty advisors began to hear more about the high rate of domestic violence in this community. Two years ago, I lived with a host family in the canton (district) of Pachichaj. In contrast to my home stay during my first summer in Guatemala, this past summer I rented a room outside of the center of town in canton Panabaj from an Oregon-born restaurant owner. Although I was more physically removed from the Mayan community last year, the distance allowed me to have more time and space to do my field notes and collaborate with a fellow Guatemala Health Initiative undergraduate student researcher from Penn.

Though I knew the subject of domestic violence was a delicate and often personal topic, I hoped that my good rapport with people in Santiago would help me to establish the necessary trust to conduct interviews with the professionals in the community.
Sample Overview:

The sample for this study focused on those in the community who were responsible in some form or another for providing support or services to victims of domestic violence. I conducted full length-interviews with twenty persons from the legal, medical, governmental, and other related fields involved in helping victims of domestic violence. I found these “professionals” (or service providers) by asking the friends I had met two summers ago to identify who was responsible for helping victims of domestic violence. “Professionals” were defined as those who were involved with an institution or civil society group that provided some form of service or support to victims of domestic violence.

I spoke with nineteen “professionals” and conducted 30-60 minute semi-structured interviews with about half of these men and women. Some professionals only had time for short informal discussions while at other times, an unscheduled opportunity would arise and I would be unable to record the conversation on my computer. I found professionals to interview from legal, medical, government, and other organizations. The chart below is a list of the (false names, job position and type of service each person provided.

Professionals Interviewed


Type of Service(s)



Rita Elizabeth












Daniel, Santiago









Legal/human rights


Legal/human rights


Psychological and legal


Psychological and medical











As the above chart shows, I interviewed two workers (a lawyer and educator) who dealt with legal and who rights. Their job was to go out into the community to teach people about their basic human and legal rights. As for legal services, I observed and interviewed three professionals from the Bufete Popular (the “People’s Firm” and the legal “notifier” from the Juzgado de Paz. At the Bufete I spoke with the lawyer in charge, a law school student, and a translator. In addition to the human rights and legal service professionals, I talked to doctors, nurses, and visiting staff from the medical community in Santiago. I conducted full interviews with three employees from three different health centers and I spoke with president and an educator of the local Tz’utujil-run clinic Rxiin Tnamet. The main form of government or bureaucratic support for women came from the local government (La Municipalidad) and its Oficina de la Mujer. My source of information came from the male vice-chief below the mayor and two works for the women’s office.

Limited psychological service for victims of domestic violence came from the Ministerio Público de Guatemala (MP), which also provides legal and social services to victims. The psychologist from the MP was one of my first and key informants for my research and she was also helpful in connecting me to other professionals in the community and she should be given a great deal of credit for the success I had with using the snowball method to find willing interviewees.

Other informants included a social justice worker who owned a pharmacy, a man who provided private legal services, the female leader of the women’s community groups, a professional from a civil war revitalization group called ADECAP, and a woman who worked for the Central Administration of Justice (CAJ). I also told whomever I befriended with about my research in order to gain insight on what townspeople thought about domestic violence, giving them an opportunity to share whatever they wanted to about the subject. Some of my best friends from the community would share their stories with me, and even if they were not considered to be part of the “professional” community, these stories help supplement the research I was doing with the professionals.

Although I arrived with the intention of interviewing actual victims of abuse as well as professionals, I felt uncomfortable doing this in the relatively short amount of time I was able to stay in Guatemala. Ten weeks was barely sufficient to interview the professional community in Santiago, let alone establish a relationship with victims of domestic abuse and interview these women. I was also worried that my role as a researcher would be confused with that of a “counselor” who has years of training and experience. Aside from the interviews with caregivers, the other victim stories that I heard came about after I would tell someone about my research topic and they would voluntarily tell me about their personal stories or those of a relative or friend.

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